Successful Thai Language Learner: Hamish Chalmers

Hamish Chalmers

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Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

Name: Hamish Chalmers
Nationality: British
Age range: 30-40
Sex: Male 
Location: Bangkok
Profession: EAL Faculty Head
Website/blog: Tweet Yourself Thai
Twitter: @AjarnPasa

What is your Thai level?

In the language world we have two basic benchmarks between no language and full fluency. These are BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALPs (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Taxi Thai and Politics Thai. I’m at the CALPs end of the scale, but still working towards full fluency.

Do you speak more street Thai, Issan Thai, or professional Thai?

It’s ‘day to day’ Thai, I guess. The influences on my Thai range from Karen villagers in Sangklaburi to cosmopolitan socialites in Bangkok, but most of the consolidation of my learning has happened in Bangkok, at work and at home.

What were your reasons for learning Thai?

I came here in 2001 to work as a tour leader for an adventure travel company. My job was to pick up a bunch of tourists at Don Mueang then take them around the country for a couple of weeks, visiting ‘off the beaten track’ destinations, and catering to all their needs.

As a consequence of this ‘off-the-beaten-trackness’, knowing Thai was pretty imperative. Up-country there are far fewer people comfortable with English than there are in Bangkok. In fact, in many places our local guides would be speaking Thai as their second language: Karen, Hmong or an ear-bending Southern dialect being their first. If I wanted to make sure the minibus driver got us safely to the right guesthouse in Nakorn Sri Thammarat, account for a passenger’s nut allergy at the Night Bazaar in Pitsanulok, or relay warnings about a hornets’ nest deep in the jungle of the Nan borderlands, it was pretty important for me to know Thai.

Do you live in Thailand? If so, when did you arrive?


Yup, been here pretty much non-stop since August 2001.

How long have you been a student of the Thai language?

I knew I would be coming to Thailand a year before doing so. So, I started to learn Thai from then. I bought a copy of Colloquial Thai, put the tape in the deck in my car, and whenever I was driving around alone I would have conversations with the tape in Thai.

Did you learn Thai right away, or was it a many-pronged approach?

After the initial pre-Thailand preparation I dived straight in when I got here.

Did you stick to a regular study schedule?

My only schedule was and is to try to speak, read and listen to as much Thai as possible every day.

What Thai language learning methods did you try?

I bought a lot of study aids. My very first was the Lonely Planet Phrase Book. Colloquial Thai by John Moore and Saowalak Rodchue saw me start in earnest, then David Smyth’s Teach Yourself Thai and the Rosetta Stone helped me along the way once I was in the country. I got about a quarter of the way through each of them before losing interest in them all. All were useful in their own ways; however they never matched my language needs at any given time. That’s the thing about language learning, it doesn’t follow some nice, preordained structure – you learn what’s important at the time. While was trying to explain that a tourist had fallen over while trekking and fractured her wrist, the Rosetta Stone was telling me that ‘the boy is under the table’ and ‘the airplane is next to the man’.

Did one method stand out over all others?

Criticism notwithstanding, I did find The Rosetta Stone the best for listening and speaking, mainly because it dispenses with transcription and translation. One goes directly from image to sound and back again, with no interference from English, the same way in which we learn our first language. Of course, nothing beats getting out there, talking to Thais, listening to Thais, replicating what you hear and not worrying if you make mistakes, so long as you learn from them. To help my writing I’ve just started experimenting with

How soon did you tackle reading and writing Thai?

Bit of a mixed bag this one. I learnt the alphabet almost straight away. It became very clear very early on that one cannot trust the transcriptions. Forget the obvious ones like Phuket and Sukumvit (where one just learns to substitute p for ph and w for v); it’s things like ต, ป and ง, not to mention many of the vowel sounds, which really get butchered by the transcription protocols. However, to my shame, I didn’t learn the tone rules until very recently.

Did you find learning to read and write Thai difficult?

No! And this is the daft thing. I put off learning the tone rules because I kept being presented with baroque charts and overly complicated explanations, which were terribly off-putting. However, I hooked up with Brett from Learn Thai from a White Guy who had the rules drilled into me within, I kid you not, two hours. He stripped all the rubbish away and taught them to me in a logical, straightforward way. I guess it helped knowing the letters and consonant classes already, but still, it was much easier than I had imagined. Once I had them down it was just a question of practise, practise, practise to consolidate them. Here, Anki SRS cards are your friend.

What was your first ‘ah hah!’ moment?

Albeit tone-free, it was reading the inscription over the archway leading into the market outside Phra Pathom Chedi, and understanding it. It was at that moment that all these squiggles became words that could be put together to communicate a distinct thought. After that I have had loads of little ah hah moments. Most recent was when I read the tiny sign next to the Withayu/Sukumvit junction that says you can go straight over if you are going to the expressway and you don’t have to turn left like all the pictorial signs say you must. I’ve been getting lost navigating my way around that particular one-way system for ages! A while ago another little ah hah moment was at Nan provincial museum where a sign proudly states ‘Entrance 30 baht’ above another sign which says ‘คนละ๑๐บาท’. The joy at knowing what the sign meant was easily worth the twenty baht.

How do you learn languages?

By using them.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Strengths: good pronunciation, motivation to learn (I live here, to not know the language would be disgraceful), and genuinely no fear of making a fool of myself.

Weaknesses: code switching with my wife (whose English is excellent) when I can’t find the Thai word, rather than trying to talk around the word or look it up.

What is the biggest misconception for students learning Thai?

That westerners can neither hear nor replicate the tones.

Can you make your way around any other languages?

All the French I learned at school fell out of my brain when I started Thai.

Were you learning another language at the same time as Thai?

I am still learning English! That’s the beauty of language learning, it’s a never ending journey.

Are you a computer programmer, or do you have programming experience?


Do you have a passion for music and or you play an instrument?

Yes. I play the drums and guitar.

What advice would you give to students of the Thai language?

Don’t fear the tones, learn to read, and most important … Use it or lose it.

Hamish Chalmers
Tweet Yourself Thai | Twitter: @AjarnPasa

The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…

If you are a successful Thai language learner and would like to share your experiences, please contact me. I’d love to hear from you.

10 thoughts on “Successful Thai Language Learner: Hamish Chalmers”

  1. Hi Martyn.

    Cat’s right. It’s the rules of how the tones are represented in written form that I didn’t learn until quite recently. For example I have known for a long while that both ไหม and ใหม่ say “mai”; but now I know that the first is rising and the second is low and I can match this knowledge to my aural memory of the words to ascertain the meaning of each.

    You are quite right to say that not knowing how to say and hear different tones would make life very difficult.

  2. Hi Martyn, you can still speak using the tones, yet not know the tone rules well enough to read perfectly. I believe that’s what he was saying.

    Btw – I’m just waking up… and you know how dangerous that is 😉

  3. Catherine I can’t believe Hamish didn’t learn the tone rules until recently. I always thought you couldn’t leave home without them. Perhaps Hamish naturally developed the tones over the years without realizing it and his recent efforts have merely fine tuned them. I’ve read WLT for a long time now and being toneless in Thai has always been viewed by most of your successful Thai language learners as the wrong route to take. Hamish’s hybrid mix and match approach to learning does give someone like me hope, but it also goes against what nearly every Thai language expert has preached. I’ll be shortly taking a great deal of confusion with me to sleep tonight.

  4. I also noticed that when I tried to speak Thai in the beginning, all of the French I didn’t know I knew came rolling out instead. And you’d think that stumbling to find the right Thai word a Thai one would come out, but no. A totally different language takes over our tongues. I wonder why that is?

    Amy, I used to run with a group of people who’d do just that. We were international, with English and French as a common language. Some had a little Spanish, others had Russian as well. But at that time, none of the crossover languages were Asian.

  5. I found it interesting that Hamish mentioned that all the French he’d learned “spilled out of his head” once he was learning Thai. I took about 4 years of French in high school and college (wanted to be fluent but never became immersed) and suddenly if I couldn’t think of a Thai word I’d get a French one stuck in my head and vice versa.

    And then the other day I met a Thai woman who was living in France with her French husband, and she was visiting her sister in Oakland. We spoke to each other in a smattering of French, English and Thai – it was the neatest conversation I’d had in a LOOONG time and it was so easy to substitute words I didn’t know for a different language.

    I’m looking forward to checking out the website Learn Thai from a White Guy – I’m very curious about that method of learning tones. Any tricks to make cracking this code easier the better.

  6. I’m glad Hamish mentioned the tones. So many people I come across say not to worry about the tones, and yet every Thai person I’ve ever met has always said that tones are the most important. I felt like the only person screaming from the top of the mountain about how important they are; I’m glad someone else is at the very least saying they aren’t nearly as difficult as some make them out to be.

  7. I too am working up to the point where Catherine wants me to be interviewed on these pages! I completely agree with pretty much all of what Hamish said – especially the bit about French falling out of the brain. I was fluent in French at the age of 16, having lived there for a year after several years of learning it at school, and now a fair few years later I find that all that vocabulary and those word endings have completely vanished to be replaced by tone rules and rules for writing vowels. The hardest part for me was that my age-addled brain is picking the language up WAY slower than my teenaged brain soaked up French.

    When I was in France, I went to a local French state school with all the other (French!) kids, and within three months I was fine with that. Here in Thailand, it took me about 18 months before I could confidently order food and be sure of getting the right thing.

    I would say Thai is a difficult language for a Westerner to learn, but that that’s no reason why we should not at least try – and I am totally with Hamish when he says that living in Thailand and not trying to speak the language is disgraceful.

  8. Paul, I’m going in that very same direction now with a Skype teacher. We talk about subjects that I’m involved with, then go on from there. That way when grammar is brought into it I have a vested interest (something like that).

    Welcome Greg. And I am sooooooooo looking forward to your interview 🙂

  9. Great post, Catherine, keep them coming. Beyond the vague goal of ‘learning Thai’, my goal now is to be featured on a future posting. 😀

  10. I like what Hamish has to say about how learning Thai is not about following any ‘preordained structure’; that is my experience as well. I find it far more effective to learn things that happen to capture my attention on any given day; this seems better for me than just following chapters in a book. I do feel that the Thai language books have a lot to offer, but they can only get you so far. Of course for this random type of learning to work you have a exposure to the Thai language every day.


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